[Author’s note: Trigger warning, depression, anxiety]
This chapter has been really difficult for me to write. It might be hard for you to read, too. But I need to say it. I need to write it down.
When I was nine or ten, I got skin cancer, and nearly died for the first time. Fortunately for me, I survived, but that wasn’t the only time I nearly died. A few years later, I contracted lupus (I didn’t even know what it was, except for the fact that you couldn’t eat beans and alfalfa sprouts); I nearly died, then, too, but fortunately, I got over it. I don’t exactly know how that happened, since lupus is incurable, but I did. I’ve nearly died many other times since then, but more on that in a minute.
You might have guessed by now that I’m actually lying to you. I’ve never had skin cancer, and I’ve never had lupus, and to the best of my knowledge I’ve never nearly died. That hasn’t stopped me from imagining it, though. This hasn’t stopped the fear — utter, literally debilitating fear.
If you’ve never experienced anything like this before, the whole thing might seem a little bit silly to you. I can assure you that it’s not. I don’t know how better to express this to you except to walk you through my journey. I have been terrified of getting sick and dying since I was very young, and my vivid imagination has supplied me with all kinds of creative ways that this might happen. The first diseases that I remember “contracting” were, as above, skin cancer and lupus, This is probably a direct consequence of the fact that my parents struggled with these diseases during the time I was growing up; my dad had skin cancer, and my mom was mis-diagnosed with lupus for many years.
However, since then, I’ve contracted many other illnesses, and every time I go through the same emotional roller-coaster. When I was a freshman in college, I started to get severe chest pains above my heart, and sometimes in my side or neck. I went to the doctor four or five times, and each time I went, the doctor took my blood pressure — which was always around 160/90 or higher — and immediately went into full panic mode. They measured the oxygen levels in my blood, took an EKG, took chest X-rays, the whole works. But there was nothing wrong with me that they could see. After I’d been back four or five times, and the doctor calmed me down a bit, she re-took my blood pressure (which was much more normal), and told me, essentially, that I was making the entire thing up, and that there was nothing wrong with me. She had some medical-sounding term for it, but in essence, she said my mind was playing tricks on me.
I didn’t believe her, but I stopped going to the doctor. What was the point? They weren’t going to figure out what was wrong with me anyways. Maybe it would become more obvious once I keeled over. Months went by. Everywhere I went, I made sure I knew exactly where the nearest defibrillator was so that if I had a heart attack, someone might be able to resuscitate me. I spent a lot of time in church praying to God that he would just hurry up and kill me so that I wouldn’t have to be afraid any more. I soon convinced myself that, because God works everything together for good (a popular Bible verse that people like to quote) that it was actually going to be a good thing when I died. I don’t know how. I actually took a short-term job as an A/V assistant for a man in our church who was doing some filming in a local hospital — I didn’t care about the money, but I figured that if I was going to have a heart attack, the best possible time for me to do it was when I was already in a hospital. Finally, one day, I curled up in my bed, pulled the covers tight around my neck as my heart was beating a million times a minute, legs and arms shaking, and waited to die.
Then one day, I got over it, just like that. A friend of mine told me that if she thought about it hard enough, she could start feeling chest pain, too. And almost immediately, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, and I felt normal again.
The cycle I just described I’ve been through countless times. I’ve thought I had skin cancer several times. I became convinced I had testicular cancer after I found that an acquaintance in grad school had had it several years ago. I’ve had stomach cancer; brain tumors; aneurysms; meningitis; and a host of other types of cancer, illnesses, and diseases. All of them fatal, painful, and not actually real. I’ve had several panic attacks since my first one, as well.
I’ve spent countless hours praying about this, begging God to make me not afraid anymore, because frankly? It sucks. I hate it, I hate feeling afraid that I’m not going to wake up tomorrow. I hate tensing up anytime anyone starts talking about their medical problems, because I know that now I have another imaginary disease that I’ll have to fight off sometime. I remember praying once as a teenager that I’d happily be willing to lose an arm or a leg if God would just take the fear away.
And yet, the fear remains. I’ve learned how to manage it a little bit better as I’ve gotten older, and I go through stretches (sometimes several years long) where my demon doesn’t rear up to terrify me. But I know it’s still there. There’s almost never a time that I can’t feel it lurking beneath the surface, waiting. I know it will come back, and I’ll have to do this fight all over again.
I’m recounting all of this, not because I want you to feel sorry for me, and not because I want to depress or scare you (because that’s not my goal at all), but because I need to tell people what I’ve experienced. The first twenty-two years or so of my life, I didn’t tell a soul about this. It was my deepest, darkest secret. I was ashamed of how I felt, what I thought, what I was afraid of. Since then, I’ve gradually told more and more people, but I still hate talking about it. But this fear, this terror is a part of who I am, and if I’m going to be honest about who I am in this book, I need to talk about it. In some ways, this chapter is really more for me than it is for you. It’s a way for me to start talking about fear.
There’s a verse in the Bible that says, roughly, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear comes from judgment. The one who fears does not know love.” This verse simultaneously gives me great comfort and causes me great frustration. It gives me comfort because I believe in a God who loves me, and whose perfect love casts out my terror. It brings me frustration because I am still afraid, and so I do not understand God’s love nearly as well as I “ought” to.
But if there’s anything you can take away from this chapter, it’s this: I still have hope. I have hope that someday I will overcome this demon, that someday I will wake up and know that even if I’m dying, I don’t have to be afraid of it. Maybe that will happen in this life, or maybe it won’t, I can’t say for sure. But even if I never overcome my fear before I die, my hope remains. And I’d like for that to give you hope, as well.